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Virginia’s Coal Towns
An Exhibition at the Library of Virginia
Originally Displayed April 2—October 27, 2001
The Coal Fields

Miners in No. 2 Mine, Jewell Ridge, Tazewell Virginia Miners in No. 2 Mine,
Jewell Ridge, Tazewell County. Photograph.
Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
The Library of Virginia.

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The success of Southwest Virginia's coalfields—lying in Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise Counties—is inexorably linked to the expansion of railroads and to northern capital. After the Civil War, rail companies expanded westward as entrepreneurs and industrialists opened coal seams in Virginia's southwestern region. Norfolk & Western shipped its first coal from the Pocahontas Coalfield in 1883 and quickly developed lines through Tazewell to Norton. The Louisville & Nashville built into Norton and the Wise County coalfields by the 1890s. By 1900, companies developed lines that delivered coal from southwestern Virginia to piers at Hampton for shipment to both domestic and international markets. Southwest Virginia coalfields supplied high-grade coking coal to fuel the steel industry and steam coal for industrial and domestic use. The boom economy created by mining in the early 1900s faltered during the Great Depression but recovered during World War II. By the 1950s, many of Virginia's veins, which had begun operations more than fifty years earlier, were mined out.

Beginning in the 1880s, investors in New York and Philadelphia formed mining companies that purchased large tracts of land or negotiated mineral and timber rights in these rural counties. Before the boom ended in the 1920s, as many as 125 coal camps, or company towns, thrived in Southwest Virginia. The coal camps brought together, often for the first time, miners of different cultures and nationalities. To meet labor demands, mining and railroad companies advertised for and brought emigrants not only from other states, but also from Italy, Hungary, and Poland.